Spoiled by Motorcycle Technology | Tech Matters

The general reliability and easy-to-live-with nature of modern motorcycles never ceases to amaze me. By New Year’s Eve morning, it was clear that this winter was going to be particularly sloppy, and since I don’t like to ride any of my "good" machines on sand and salt-encrusted roads, I decided to drag myself out to the shop and give them a proper bed down, especially since, based on past performance, I might not be able to do it on New Year’s Day.

I started with my 2008 Triumph Scrambler. Since the bike had been sitting for a few weeks and the temperature in the garage was hovering in the mid-twenties (I only turn on the heat when I’m out there working), I sort of expected she might be a little hard to start. In fact, I figured the old gal might be downright uncooperative, but God hates a coward, so I turned on the fuel, engaged the choke and hit the button. To my pleasant surprise, she fired up like it was a summer afternoon.

After a short warm up, I pulled it onto the lift, drained the engine oil and started to look things over. I hadn’t serviced the bike since the previous spring, roughly 4,000 miles ago, so I expected to find something that needed adjustment, even if it was only the chain which hadn’t been adjusted since the bike left the factory over 5,000 miles ago. Not only could I find nothing wrong with the bike, but the chain, which had been lubricated sporadically at best, was still within the specified adjustment range. As Dave Barry says, "I’m not making this up."

I gave the adjusting screws a 1/4 turn, but more because I felt guilty than because of any real need. Everything else, from cable free play to the carburetor synchronization, was spot on. Once the oil and filter were changed, I had nothing left to do but park the bike and wait for the roads to clear.

That’s pretty much the story for most new bikes, and by 'new,’ I mean anything made in the last 20 years or so. Sure, some bikes have their quirks, and there’s always a recall on some particular model to keep things interesting, but by and large the modern motorcycle is as flawless a piece of work as anything mechanical can be. Even more amazing to someone who cut their riding teeth on bikes built prior to the Japanese takeover, is how well they work, and how easy they are to fix when they don’t.

Consider my 1968 BSA Victor Special, which I decided also needed to be serviced that afternoon. Now, for those of you that aren’t familiar with the Victor, it’s a 441cc Enduro bike that was loosely based on BSA’s world-beating motocross bikes of the early 60’s. Mine is a decent-looking rider that was given a fairly full restoration about a year ago. To start the bike, you first pull in the clutch, place the bike in second gear and rock it back and forth a half dozen times to free up the clutch plates. Next, you unfold the kick-starter and gingerly press down on it until it engages the kick-start gear. Once the starter gears are meshed, you pull in the compression release, and kick the bike through maybe five or six times to get everything moving. The next step is to find top dead center, and then use the compression release to relieve compression so you can just rock the piston over the TDC. This provides an additional 270 degrees of crankshaft rotation before the piston comes back to the ignition point, which greatly improves your chances of starting the bugger. If you don’t follow this procedure, the engine will likely backfire the first time you kick it, which will have a detrimental effect on the bike’s ability to start, the integrity of the kick-start gears, and your ankle bones.

Once the piston is in the correct position, you turn on the fuel, and depress the carburetor tickler. There is no choke, so you wait until fresh gas leaks past the carburetor vent, onto your hands, the bike’s crankcase and the floor, at which point you can safely assume that enough raw gas has made its way into the intake port to create an atmosphere that’ll support combustion.

Finally, you turn on the key, give a mighty lunge on the kick-starter and maybe, if you’ve done everything just right, the bike will fire up. If it doesn’t, you’ll spend the next 15 minutes or so repeating the ritual—and trust me, it gets old fast. Eventually, the bike will start or you’ll decide you’ve got better things to do.

Mine starts easily, so after maybe ten minutes it was happily chugging away, and warm enough to drain the oil(s)—that’s plural because there are four separate reservoirs, not including the front forks, that have to drained and refilled, and two filter screens that have to be removed, cleaned and reinstalled. Every thousand or so miles you also have to re-torque the head and adjust the valves, set the ignition points and timing and adjust the primary and secondary chains, which didn’t seem like a big deal back in 1968 but does now.

Apparently, I’ve become spoiled by modern technology. And it’s a wonderful thing.